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Staff management is fraught with all sorts of difficulties. It really doesn’t help when there is also confusion and disagreement about some of its key concepts.  One of these concerns the meaning and use of the terms competence and competency. Many people use these terms interchangeably but that ignores the fact that there are important distinctions between them.  It also doesn’t help to look up the distinctions on Google, where they may be recognised but where different authors reverse the meanings.

To properly understand the differences, you need to understand the origins of the meanings. One source is American organizational psychology which defines competency (or competence) as a set of attributes or characteristics that enable an individual to perform well. This meaning is the one that has largely been adopted by the Human Resources world. Another source is the British Educational establishment, which has defined competence as the ability to perform an activity consistently to the required standard. This definition has also been adopted in the safety arena (e.g. check out the definition of competence used by the HSE). The term competency, in this approach, is reserved for the first definition above.

Actually, the educational definition comes in two forms. There is an input definition which is concerned with how competence is developed, i.e. the training or educational route for becoming competent, and defines competence in terms of the qualifications held. There is also an output definition which defines competence as the demonstration of the capability to perform an activity effectively.  It is common for organisations to rely on one definition and think they are managing competence but effective management requires taking all three into account. We all know people with qualifications who are incapable of applying their knowledge in practice, people who have demonstrated they are perfectly capable of performing effectively but for personal reasons under-perform, and people who have all the desirable personal qualities except that they don’t have the knowledge and skills do a job.